By Kevin Sweeney
We’re on to day two of my preseason top 100. Today, we’ll break down #80-#61, an interesting tier of teams that right now would be penciled into the NIT, but whose best case is an NCAA Tournament berth and whose worst case might be finishing under .500. It’s a nice mix of good mid-majors and competitive high-major teams, but all have question marks.
Here are my breakdowns for each team in that tier!
#80. Butler– The Bulldogs faltered big-time down the stretch last season, losing 10 of their final 14 games to finish under .500 for just the second time since 2005. Defense and free throw margin did BU in– both likely related to a frontcourt that failed to protect the rim or impact things down low offensively. The frontcourt has a chance to take a step forward with two newcomers in Bryce Nze (Milwaukee) and Derrik Smits (Valpo), both of whom are far better rim protectors than anyone the Bulldogs had inside last season. With a solid stable of guards headlined by Kamar Baldwin already in tow, improving the frontcourt could get the Bulldogs back into the bubble mix.
#79. Kansas State– How will the Wildcats score? That is question #1 for Bruce Weber’s bunch, given they lose their top three shot-creators from a team that was inconsistent to begin with on the offensive end. Xavier Sneed will have to take significant steps forward, as will Cartier Diarra and Mike McGuirl. The defense should travel, but will it be enough to win consistently in the Big 12?
#78. Temple– Evaluating the Owls in year one of the Aaron McKie era is somewhat difficult given we have no background on McKie as a head coach. Combine that with losing star point guard Shizz Alston as well as starting center Ernest Aflakpui, and Temple is in a pretty interesting spot. The wing pairing of Quinton Rose, Nate Pierre-Louis, and Kennesaw State transfer James Scott is NCAA Tournament-level good. However, finding someone to create for others and someone to grab boards determines where they’ll stand in a wide-open AAC.
#77. Rhode Island– David Cox has built a loaded roster in year two after taking over for Dan Hurley. The Rams return six of their top seven scorers and add a strong recruiting class to the mix that should allow URI to go as many as 10 deep should Cox choose to do so. My main concern is the point guard position– Cox elected to play Fatts Russell on the ball over Jeff Dowtin, and that experiment did not go well. We’ll see how Cox deploys the pairing this year, but for my money Dowtin is the better creator for others (and the numbers back that up).
#76. Rutgers– For the first time under Steve Pikiell, Rutgers won’t need to turn every game into a rock fight in order to win, That’s a testament to the increasing talent on the roster year over year, with the additions of Jacob Young (Texas) and Paul Mulcahy to go with the return of talents like Geo Baker, Montez Mathis, Ron Harper, and Caleb McConnell meaning RU has the guards to go up against bubble teams. Losing Eugene Omoruyi hurts without a doubt, though it does free up Pikiell to play some smaller lineups. Will the defense stay strong with a more guard-driven team? We’ll see, but there’s reason for optimism that the Scarlet Knights could continue their slow climb up the Big Ten standings.
#75. Harvard– Tommy Amaker has recruited about as well as any mid-major coach in the nation of late, effectively selling the Harvard brand to players with better options from a basketball perspective. As a result, this roster is loaded– if it can stay healthy. That has been the challenge the last two years in particular, as Seth Towns missed all of last season after Bryce Aiken missed parts of the last two seasons. Those two players each have the talent to be the best player in the conference if they can stay on the court, and a nice group of role players surround them. This is a team that could contend for an at-large bid if they can get work done in the non-conference.
#74. UCLA– It’s hard to get a feel for the Bruins in year one for Mick Cronin, coming off a disappointing season that ended early for Steve Alford. Plenty of talent is still on the roster, but Cronin will have to find a way to get this roster to defend. RS freshman Tyger Campbell taking over at point guard was a former 4-star talent, though he is coming off a torn ACL. The frontcourt of Cody Riley, Jalen Hill, and Shareef O’Neal should be strong, and that should bode well for a team that will play a lot more in the halfcourt than they ever did under Alford.
#73. UConn– We’ll see how many of the early recruiting wins Dan Hurley has registered thus far can be turned into wins on the floor this season. The four-man freshman class Hurley brings in, headlined by skilled fringe 5-star forward Akok Akok and guards Jalen Gaffney and James Bouknight, is the future of the program, without a doubt. But getting consistent point guard play from Alterique Gilbert is a question mark, and the Huskies have to find a way to win games against “up” competition after going just 2-15 in Tier A&B games per KenPom.
#72. Georgia Tech– He may not enter this season on the hot seat (partially due to a long contract), but this feels like a make-or-break year for Josh Pastner. While waivers for Bubba Parham (VMI) and Jordan Usher (USC) are still pending, the return of Jose Alvarado, Mike DeVoe, and James Banks gives Pastner has enough talent to win some games in an ACC that projects to be somewhat down. Depth is a concern, as is finding ways to score consistently. But this team needs to at least be NIT-caliber for me to have any confidence in Pastner moving forward.
#71. DePaul– This is probably a bit higher than most will have the Blue Demons, but maybe a little lower than I think the upside for this team. Assuming Charlie Moore gets a waiver to be immediately eligible, I love the prospects for this group. Paul Reed is ready to springboard himself into the national conversation as one of the better bigs in the country, and top-50 freshman Romeo Weems will make an impact on both ends. Obviously, Dave Leitao has to show us all something, but I’m a believer in this roster and saw some positive signs during their international trip.
#70 Minnesota– This will be a much different Minnesota team than last year’s group. After dominating people on the glass last season while struggling to hit outside shots, the buzz out of the Twin Cities is that the Gophers are much improved shooting the ball. They obviously won’t possess the same size edge, but Daniel Oturu has a chance to take steps forward as a sophomore and become one of the Big Ten’s best centers. Payton Willis is the x-factor, the transfer from Vanderbilt who was mostly a bust as a recruit but has had positive things said about him this offseason. If he can provide another scoring option on the wing, the Gophers have a shot to make some noise in the Big Ten’s middle of the pack.
#69. New Mexico– I broke down most of my thoughts on the Lobos on the most recent episode of the CBB Central Podcast, but in summary: talent isn’t the problem. Paul Weir’s patented press failed him, and that combined with point guard woes made for a trying 2018-19. Point guard should no longer be a problem with the additions of JJ Caldwell and JaQuan Lyle, and adding Zane Martin to the mix gives this team an edge they didn’t have. However, meshing all these talented pieces together will be a challenge for a young coach, and fixing that press is incredibly important as well.
#68. Vermont– The Catamounts bring back more than 75% of their production from a team that won 27 games last season and adds a pair of transfers in Daniel Giddens (Alabama) and Duncan DeMuth (Oklahoma State) to the mix. The combination of Giddens and DeMuth with superstar forward Anthony Lamb should form a fearsome frontcourt. Getting closer to the bubble relies on a distributor stepping up in the backcourt with the graduation of Ernie Duncan. Stef Smith might be that guy, as could be freshman Aaron Deloney.
#67. Iowa State– It’s officially the Tyrese Haliburton show in Ames, as the Draft Twitter darling will take on a much larger role in creating offense after wowing as an elite low-usage role player last season. He’ll form a nice duo with inside-out big Michael Jacobsen, but that duo needs help to compete for a bid. The young trio of Terence Lewis, Zion Griffin, and George Conditt has upside, and Colorado State import Prentiss Nixon can score the ball.
#66. San Diego State– A trio of transfers in Malachi Flynn (Washington State), KJ Feagin (Santa Clara), and Yanni Wetzell (Vanderbilt) buoy this SDSU roster for Brian Dutcher’s third year on the job. The dual-PG backcourt that the Aztecs can trot out with Flynn and Feagin is so dangerous, able to attack teams in ball screens and get out in transition. Add in a pair of skilled wings in Matt Mitchell and Keshad Johnson and two good bigs in Wetzell and Nathan Mensah, and this is a really talented core.
#65. Indiana– How good will this backcourt be? That’s the question Archie Miller’s group will have to answer if they want any hope of getting to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the Miller era. 5-star big Trayce Jackson-Davis should pair nicely with Justin Smith up front, and adding in De’Ron Davis and Joey Brunk should form a deep frontcourt. But can Rob Phinisee, Devonte Green, and Al Durham consistently create offense after failing to ever get going last season. Jerome Hunter is also worth monitoring as a breakout candidate on the wing.
#64. Missouri– The Tigers were brutal offensively last season, ranking 3rd-worst in the SEC in offensive efficiency and 318th nationally in turnover rate. Those numbers should be improved this season with the introduction of Evansville transfer Dru Smith, a glue guy PG who defends, passes, and slashes with the best of them. Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Torrence Watson, Xavier Pinson and Javon Pickett is a nice backcourt that should produce a much better offense. Jeremiah Tilmon finally putting it all together would be a major boost as well.
#63. Miami– The additions of three highly-regarded guards in Oklahoma transfer Kam McGusty and top-100 freshmen in Isaiah Wong and Harlond Beverly to a backcourt that already featured diminutive dynamo Chris Lykes and shooter Dejan Vasiljevic should create a unit that can score with anyone. The frontcourt is where concern lies– can Florida grad transfer Keith Stone eat minutes as a small-ball 5? The Canes were hurt on the glass last year, and it seems likely that they will be again this season. Still, there’s enough scoring talent there for me to give the UM a chance to Dance.
#62. Belmont– It’s still weird to think about Belmont being coached by someone other than Rick Byrd, but they landed a more than capable replacement for their legendary man in charge in Casey Alexander. Fresh off a strong run at Lipscomb, Alexander moves across town to be the head coach at his alma mater. The Bruins will likely play faster and with a few less backcuts, but having a big man like Nick Muszynski is a great weapon in the halfcourt. Boston U grad transfer Tyler Scanlon should be a perfect fit as a highly skilled four to form a big three of sorts with Muszynski and Grayson Murphy.
#61. Wichita State– This is a tremendously young Shocker team, with just three juniors and seniors on the roster (and one of those, Trey Wade, a JUCO transfer). Gregg Marshall has loaded up on guards, landing a trio of highly-touted ballhandlers in the 2019 class with Grant Sherfield, Tyson Etienne, and Noah Fernandes to go with returning guards Jamarius Burton, Erik Stevenson, and Dexter Dennis. A big question: will Marshall elect to go small and play Dennis as a small-ball 4? Or will we see two-big looks consistently with guys like Jaime Echenique, Asbjorn Midtgaard, and talented freshman Josaphat Bilau?
If you missed #100-81, you can find those HERE. Check back tomorrow for #60-#41.